Editorial: A policy that gets the Charity Tribunal off to a negative start

Last week, we reported that the Judicial Appointments Commission was refusing to pay travel expenses for candidates to come to London for interviews for the new 12-strong Charity Tribunal.

Stephen Cook
Stephen Cook

Gareth Morgan, a professor at Sheffield Hallam University, withdrew his application and said he was concerned the policy would discourage suitable candidates who are on low incomes or do not live in the south-east. The JAC's response was that it received more than 2,000 applications a year and paying expenses would mean a considerable cost to the public purse.

Perhaps the main objection to this policy is that it sits unhappily with this statement on the JAC website: "We are committed to widening the range of applications for judicial appointment and to ensuring that the very best eligible candidates are drawn from a wider range of backgrounds." The JAC usually deals with applicants from lawyers wishing to be judges, who tend to be well off. But seven of the 12-strong tribunal do not have to be legally qualified, and the policy reduces the pool of potential talent and the scope for greater diversity, either because candidates genuinely can't afford their own travel or because, like Morgan, they don't want anything to do with an organisation that behaves like this.

In one respect, the JAC's statement seems likely to mislead: it contains the clear implication that all applicants to the commission are invited for interview, and its website makes clear that applicants are sifted before the interview stage. It also uses the wearisome excuse of every Whitehall jobsworth that it is acting to protect the public purse. Public bodies waste money all the time, sometimes prodigiously, and in the current phase of cutbacks there must be many more productive targets than a few rail tickets. The proviso about considering exceptional cases merely adds insult to injury: does the commission want people to demean themselves by haggling over a 50 quid fare?

The JAC is not under some Whitehall-wide instruction; the policy is that individual "business units", as they are now known, decide on such matters for themselves. A few inquiries reveal that most units do pay for travel. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says it's normal practice to pay reasonable expenses and that an organisation that refuses to do so is giving a clear - and mostly negative - message to the world about itself. The inevitable conclusion is that this policy is misguided and potentially counterproductive, gets the new tribunal off to a very bad start and ought to be overturned straight away.

- There are many notable things about the Charity Commission's guidance on public benefit, published today, and they will no doubt be debated robustly. But something worth mentioning at once is the extent to which the guidance has changed after the consultation on last year's draft. Consultations are often mainly window dressing, and last week's government guidance on charities and terrorism may be a case in point. But in this instance the commission has engaged with and responded constructively to more than 900 submissions from stakeholders, and even delayed final publication to consider them. Whatever else people say about the results, the commission gets top marks for listening.

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